How to Find and See Tracks

Did they levitate?

Tools and techniques …

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Concept Illustrated: Predicting … where will the next track will be?

Photo of Black Bear track made while changing direction of travel.

The idea: Tracks hold clues about where the next can be found.

Prediction is one of the highest learning skills and a good way to help your hard-won knowledge settle in.  Learning the clues in a track for how the body was being moved, how the energy was flowing, nurtures your predictive ability.

One way: create two different sets of tracks; one a series of straight-ahead slow and simple steps, the second set similar but with one obvious change in direction.  This might take a few tries to be useful.  Comparing the two sets, and remembering your body movements, where did the change in direction really begin?

In this clip a human right foot gives some idea of how the foot and sand interact when the foot serves as a push point to turn the body gently to the left.  Some  signs of this push are left in the track.

This clip does not show all the indicators of a turn … One big and obvious indicator was intentionally left out (that’s a clue)!


Concept Illustrated: Dust Compressions (Dull on Shiny by a Toe Pad)

The idea: Tracks are created in every interaction between a foot and a surface, and a bit beyond that.  This illustration is meant to demonstrate a track that was left on a surface covered by a sparse layer of dust particles so small you only see them when your eye is at the correct angle to catch the light, it also hints at a way to see that track (if you were the camera…)



Concept Illustrated: Increasing the Visibility of Tracks by Adjusting Light and Shadow

The Idea:   This illustration is about a technique to reveal faint tracks and details.

Shadow and light are what makes tracks visible … and reveals the details.  In the dark, heavy shade, or noon sun, and even when clouds reduce the amount of shadow, tracks and details may be much less visible, or worse.    This method can help by making details more obvious.



Concept Illustrated: Track on ‘Bare’ Rock (Red Fox Front Foot)

The idea: One way to find tracks on “bare” rock …



Concept Illustrated: Reading Stone Rolls

The idea:  Noticing stones that have been disturbed, or knocked clear out of their soil beds, is another way tofind tracks, or follow a trail.  This method can sometimes speed up the tracking process a bit.

Yeah, ok, the photo’s an exaggerated case, but it clearly demonstrates an instant In the life-cycle of a stone roll.  A road grader left this sign. The shadow is the author and camera.

Soil conditions, and the way those at and near the surface affect soil response to a foot are constantly changing, and have quite a say in the obviousness of tracks.

In this area of the Rocky Mountains, rain can wash away faint tracks and make even deep tracks fade and slump, because the soil is so sandy, and contains little organic matter.  This soil drains quickly, but has enough fine dust and organic matter to stay damp and settled.  This packed damp soil will retain it’s rigidity after it dries, or even longer, and that doesn’t depends only on the weather.  This soil can become so packed and settled that the hoof of an adult deer, walking after a rain, sometimes disturbs just the uppermost objects on the surface, or will leave only a faint compression or a pair of toe-tip indentations.

When soil conditions hold only faint tracks …  Dullings, scuffs, slight depressions, etc. … It can take much longer to read or follow even a section of a trail.

Sometimes it is useful to minimize the time it takes to find the tracks.  How?  There are several strategies.  Noticing stone rolls is one especially easy way; when animals have crossed open stony ground after a soaking rain has settled the surface  (where there is no layer of leaves or pine needles).

What happens to the soil when it rains?  Ever watch?  That’s a good place to start.  In this area the rain carries fine soil into the gaps where embedded stones and soil surface meet, sealing them, and it begins rounding the edges of empty holes already present as it begins filling them in.  The surface will gradually weather from this state unless something has disturbed it.

The least sign left when someone does disturb this surface can be faint.  As little as a tiny open crack at what was a rain-sealed boundary of soil and stone, a faint dulling or a slight depression.

 More obvious sign can include stones knocked completely out of their beds, leaving a patchy trail of disturbed stones that can sometimes be easily seen, after a little practice.

Like most other track features there are variations: large stone rolls and tiny … Old stone and fresh … Some slightly rocked in their beds, and others pushed deeper … And stones so large they kick back.  Fortunately there is dust everywhere.



Concept Illustrated: Lifts and Drops as Track Features and Indicators of Direction of Foot Movement

The idea:  Illustrate the process, and usefulness of “Lifts” (when things stick to the foot and are lifted from their original position on the ground).  Lifts may give clues about direction of foot travel.

Soil conditions are constantly varying. Lifts can happen in almost any soil when conditions favor.  In the photo above it is 7:40 a.m. on April 28 at about 9,000 feet.  The previous evening the sand had been damp, during the night it froze.  The sun rose at about 6 a.m. and had been shining on this spot just long enough to melt most of a shallow layer of overnight snow, and thaw a thin surface layer of the sand.  Known facts like those make it an interesting example for reading the age of a track.

Lifts can range from a single sand grain up to a chunk as large as everything else stuck on the bottom and sides of the foot.  These can sometimes be carried up and away.  Attached to the foot this material can distort the next track and even carry useful information from the track even back home … Sherlock Holmes could deduce something about where a shoe had been from the kind of mud caked on.

And … “Drops” (when these things stuck to the foot eventually fall, are knocked off, or stick to some other object) have uses also.  For example, they sometimes indicate the foot’s direction of travel.

When the author was a child he learned to avoid certain places with clay-rich ground, because walking became progressively difficult as sticky mud built-up on his shoes (and slippery?  Ever try greasy clay mud skating?).  Once back on dryer ground an obvious trail of mud was left as chunks fell off with every step.



Concept Illustrated: The Tracking Stick.

The idea:  One way to find a hard to see track.

This method can also speed up how long it takes to follow a trail.



Concept Illustrated: How Small and Still Readable?

The idea:  Raise a question; What are the limitations?

Ants leave tracks also!  If you look at the image above, where the white arrow is pointing, there is a sand grain coated with mud that the right rear leg is just pressing into. Now look at the lower photo.

In this next photo, that leg left an indentation. If you look a little more closely, you can see the imprint left by the spur on that joint, branching off and angled back from the darker line imprinted by the leg. (You can see it a little more clearly in the insert).  There is a trail also: look at the insert, in the area  above and to the right of the mark left by the ant’s right rear leg, see the two little dimples?  And there’s more…



Finding the next track is often a problem.  

Eventually, most likely sooner, a tracker comes across part of a trail where the animal seems to have left no tracks … and yes, they might have jumped, but the tracks you can see don’t mention that … so the missing tracks must be there, right?  And you look some more, and still find none.  So, with admirable determination and instead of giving it a rest, or trying some other method, you keep looking till your brain begins generating false tracks, and you still can’t see any certain ones.

What to do when you finally give up and admit that’s not working?

There’s normal every day seeing and then there’s seeing. Have you ever been surprised when suddenly realizing that thing you thought you were looking at was something else entirely?  There’s a Sherlock Holmes / Mary Russell story where Sherlock glances over the side of their cruise ship and notices an object floating along beside the ship.  After a moment his brain snaps into gear and puts the pieces together; moving ship, object keeping pace, he realized it was a shark fin, and rather large at that.

Or … look at a track … now begin all over again and look to find as many details as you can … Now get real close and do that again.

How many ways are there to see a track?

How many layers of relevant detail do you usually catch?

Sometimes giving up lets you see details you missed at first … “Giving up” as in resting the mind for a few moments and then taking a fresh perspective works pretty darn well but doesn’t solve all the problems with seeing.  This page is about ways to solve those other problems …

Now that the art of seeing has been mentioned … this book is relevant: “Tracking & The Art of Seeing”. Copyright 1999 by Paul Rezendes. ISBN: 0-06-273524-1



Ways to find the next track … (list is incomplete)

The Tracking Stick: Ancient technology that works, and has multiple uses.  Can you use it to find the next track while standing?  (More about this on the “Trails” page)

Reading the current track: Can give you some idea of how much energy was used, where the energy was going, how they used the foot, and which direction they moved.

Side heading: No big mystery, just put your head close to the ground and turn it to look sideways across the trail.  This change in perspective provides more information.  You can do something like this with a flashlight…

Feel Tracking:  It is possible to sense something left when the track was made (maybe body heat, or the energy left by the being that made it?) … (this is no joke).

The author heard about this in an introductory class taught by Tom Brown, Jr., and after dwelling in skepticism for a few years finally tried it and discovered Tom was right … It does work, and the author has used this method several times since.

The way it worked the last time:

The trail was first noticed in a shaded area of hard-packed damp sandy/stony topsoil on a dirt road that had been rained on the evening before.  The rain was relevant because no other similar, or larger-sized animals had left fresh tracks in that freshly weathered surface..

A warm spot was felt in the palm of the hand while it was held an inch or two above an easily visible track.  The next several tracks in the series were found by slowly moving the hand above the soil, and examining the ground beneath the hand when similar sensations occurred.

After they’d been found, the next several tracks turned out to be only faint flattened areas, faint depressions, slight scuffs, a pebble nudged out of its bed, a broken pine needle.  Verification of those hard to see signs came when an obvious and fresh track left by the same animal was reached.

The author has heard of this skill being pushed much further …

How to … the basic version:

The first time, just in case, choose a trail it’s ok to damage.

Start with the last obvious track.  Hold your hand about an inch or two above that spot (palm down works for the author), avoiding touching the ground.   This works best if you don’t look for tracks as you move your hand, and instead just look a bit to the side and pay attention to your body as you slowly move your hand in sideways sweeps above the track.

When your hand is near or above the visible track, you may notice a sensation; warmth on the palm, or back of the hand, a tingle in the shoulder muscle, or something else unique to you.  Experiment and persist… learning to tune into this sensation may take some time.

After you’ve learned the sensation, begin searching for the next track the same way, and keep paying attention to the same location on your body where you first noticed the sensation.  Sometimes a series of short arcs across the area works best.  When you get that sensation again, examine the area under your palm closely, looking for the track … it may be faint.

To follow a trail of hard to see tracks you repeat this process until you begin to find obvious tracks again.  It helps to mark the location of each track as you find it (don’t disturb the trail).

Another experiment: What are the limits for this sense?

An example: one summer day, walking along a favorite dirt road, and working on inner stillness, the author suddenly found himself thinking about wolves.  No sparking object or thought, just one moment stillness, and the next it felt like the author was up on the ridge observing himself walking down the road.

Who knows what that really was?  As far as field guides go, there haven’t been wolves up here this century, or the last.  Well, there was that one time in the early 21st century when this set of huge canine tracks crossed the area … and a wolf made the news when it was killed by a car a mile two away down on the highway.  So if your mind ever suddenly switches gears in a similar way you might pause to ask yourself what is going on.